Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Breaking Nutrition News: Paula Deen Has Diabetes

Paula Deen has diabetes and the media goes wild. Forgive me for the headline, but this is  about as close as we get to breaking news in the field of nutrition. The last time this happened Mary Kate Olsen went public with her eating disorder. Or was it Ashley? But these are serious diseases and celebrity diagnoses can often help others. 
As a frequent media “expert” on local news, I am having to form an opinion about this and will be heading up to the local TV station at 9:30 this evening to comment on it live. I have already Facebooked it to get my friends’ responses and, just like my friends, their comments are all over the place:
  •   "Keep your hands off my butter!”
  •  “If she wants to make money off her cooking she should be a role model or give up the spotlight.”
  • "I make my own personal choices on what I eat . . . regardless of her recipes . . . I think she is entertaining but would never make her recipes for my own consumption.”
  • "She needs to be totally honest with herself and her fans. She needs to let people know that for most people diabetes is preventable and her diet caused this."
  • "She is an entertainer, not a role model.”
And those are just the highlights. I had more comments on the Paula Deen question than any other post in my history on Facebook (61 comments and they’re still coming in). But what do I say about it? What do I even think about it? People love Paula and chastising her for her past gluttony would only make me sound like the typical buzz kill health professional who’s always telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. And I’m no angel. I never pass up French fries, chocolate, or cheese when offered.
On the other hand, diabetes is a serious disease that comes with serious consequences: blindness, kidney disease, amputations, and early death from heart disease. This hot topic is no laughing matter. The south has some of the highest rates of stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Southern cooking, as delicious as it is, hasn’t helped.
So will she or won’t she be a role model for the masses or will she merely use this to make more millions? The latter may be the case as she signed on with Novo Nordisk almost simultaneously with her announcement (which came 3 years after her diagnosis).  And here’s where I do have an opinion: celebrities hawking drugs.  Paula Deen is influential – and she could influence many American to want the “Paula Deen diabetes drug” even if it’s not the right drug for them. She could give people the impression that you can just eat her way and take a drug for your diabetes and all will be fine.  People may say she has no responsibility to be a role model but by endorsing a drug, she is making herself a role model.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease that can sometimes be treated through diet and exercise alone. Sometimes diabetes patients do need medicines to control their disease – but why take a drug that has potential side effects when exercise and eating healthier may do the trick?
So here’s my hope for Paula Deen: I hope she’ll ditch her drug company endorsement  and promote portion control with her yummy high calorie southern delectable dishes. I hope she’ll add some healthier dishes to her standard dishes to promote balance and enjoyable eating. I hope she’ll go out there and show people how to be more physically active and reduce their risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases. She has tremendous influence with her fans and this is an opportunity for her to do real good rather than hawk a diabetes drug. She can still make a tremendous amount of money in her new role as the new and healthier Paula. She may even save some lives. Does she owe it to society? No – it’s totally her business. But it sure would be nice for the Queen of Southern Cuisine to be the Queen of Diabetes Prevention. Okay that has no ring to it at all – but you know what I mean. 

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham 

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